UNCG Supports Folk Fest with Research, Artists, and Fans

Posted on September 05, 2023

A musician plays an accordion onstage in front of the sign NC Folk Fest.

A music festival is a big investment for a city. Greensboro spends a quarter of a million dollars in cash and in-kind services at its annual North Carolina Folk Festival. City officials and sponsors – which include UNC Greensboro – all want to know that a big undertaking is worth the money, the manpower, and the time.

That’s why impact studies such as the one provided by UNCG’s Department of Community and Therapeutic Recreation are so important.

Associate Professor Justin Harmon took up the research in 2018, which began with UNCG’s Office of Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Services. This study considers not only the economics of hosting large-scale events, but the wider impact on leisure, community-building, and cultural and social impact.

“We ask if it provides opportunities for residents to learn new things,” says Department Chair and collaborator Benjamin Hickerson. “We ask about celebration of the community, a showcase of new ideas, new opportunities to develop cultural skills and talents, if it exposes people to a variety of cultural experiences and a sense of togetherness.”

“Blitz” research 

The research is conducted on-site with what they refer to as “blitz interviews.” Since people generally don’t want to be stopped to fill out a long questionnaire, the researchers set up a tent where people can stop and answer a few short questions. “It takes two to five minutes,” says Harmon.

Their survey in 2022, for example, saw that people spent an average $40.95 on food and drinks, and the average spending in connection to the festival overall was $138.95.

“There’s a spillover impact of people spending money downtown at restaurants and bookstores,” says Harmon. “We want to know if that leads to a likelihood of a return to the downtown area.”

They ask participants what they think about the cultural significance. In 2022, more than 78 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the Festival was an important pillar within the community. Nearly 90 percent said it inspired a sense of pride in their community.

They also conduct off-site interviews with people who chose not to attend the festival. This gives them insight into populations that are underrepresented.

In 2022, Guilford County coordinated with Americans for the Arts, which studies the impact of the arts on a national scale every five years. Harmon and Hickerson used their survey that year.

“That data was not only given back to the Folk Festival but put into a larger database on the value of arts in America,” says Hickerson.

This year, they’ll be looking at a critical part of the festival – the volunteer experience. “We want to understand why volunteers get involved and what could be improved to make volunteering more desirable,” says Harmon.

All these questions go back to the festival organizers who use them to finetune the festival experience, expand participation to underrepresented groups, coordinate with local vendors, and attract sponsors. “Amy Grossman, the director of the festival, has told us that what often motivates sponsors is one great quote they can pull out of one of our interviews,” says Hickerson.

Hands-on lessons and bonus performances 

The NC Folk Festival has always been mutually beneficial for the City of Greensboro and UNCG. Harmon and Hickerson have recruited students for help with the surveys. In previous years, they’ve averaged about 15 students. This year, more than 30 will work with them.

“We realized that we could incorporate teaching experiences into this,” says Hickerson.

Harmon had his Recreation Facilities class walk through the festival area the day before performances began. “We looked at connections between places, traffic flow, places for rest or to escape from the heat,” says Harmon. “It’s all to understand the temporary structural footprint of a special event.”

Every year, UNCG faculty, students, and alumni take the stage as entertainers. This year, they’ll invite people to join them in jam sessions with African drums, Irish, bluegrass, and other folk styles at Center City Park.

The Department of Community and Therapeutic Recreation will present a free pre-show performance, in collaboration with Creative Greensboro. Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons will perform on Thursday, September 7, at the Greensboro Cultural Center’s Van Dyke Performance Space. The performance will accept cash donations for UNCG’s Spartan Open Pantry.

And they hope their surveys will contribute to a greater appreciation for the arts in the city that UNC Greensboro calls home. “The people we interview are very grateful that the city invests in the festival,” says Harmon.

The 2023 NC Folk Festival runs from September 8-10 in downtown Greensboro.

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